Following a debilitating and historic loss that put in check any talk of another Super Bowl trip, the Green Bay Packers can quickly reclaim their status as the class of the NFC by knocking off the undefeated Carolina Panthers in Week 9’s road matchup.
Three weeks ago the Packers were a perfect 5-0 after pulling out a two-touchdown victory over a tough St. Louis Rams' defense and stood as 3/1 favorites to win their first Super since 2010. But following last week’s harrowing 29-10 letdown to Denver the Packers have slipped behind New England to 11/2 odds, according to VegasInsider.com. The Packers are still 2/1 favorites to come out of NFC, and somewhat comfortably ahead of Arizona Cardinals (5/2).
Green Bay entered their Week 7 bye as one of the NFL’s handful of undefeated squads, and even though they hadn’t really beaten any team of consequence, the timing for the one-week layover seemed perfect before the trip to face the Broncos.
Injured Packers like running backs James Starks and Eddie Lacy, receivers Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery, and even top defenders like linebacker Nick Perry and rookie defensive back Damarious Randall would all have extra time to lick their wounds and prep for a stampeding Broncos squad.
Instead, the Packers were handed not only their first loss of the season, but one that will go down as one of the worst in the era of head coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
With his receivers struggling to get open against a harrowing Broncos secondary, Rodgers was limited to only 77 passing yards and was held without a touchdown for just the 10th time in 110 career starts as Green Bay notched a season-low 10 points and went 2-for-8 on third down.
But the way the Packers are talking, the loss shouldn’t fall on Rodgers or any one player, instead it served as a wake-up call that they needed to play better against the NFL’s elite.
"When you get hit in the mouth, there's a lot of people you can point fingers at," receiver James Jones said to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "You can point it at the quarterback, you can point it at the receivers, you can point it at the [offensive] line, but we all watched the film today.
"We know that we all played some bad football on Sunday. We know that we've got to get better, and everybody's got to get better individually. Work on what you need to get better at, but it was a team butt kicking. No way around it."
Superficially, a victory over the Panthers might not seem so important to Lambeau’s faithful, especially when one considers none of Carolina’s seven wins have come against teams that presently own winning records. But the Panthers secondary is No. 5 in the league with 229 yards allowed per game and they’ve forced 12 interceptions out of such elite passers as Drew Brees and Andrew Luck, while treating Seattle’s Russell Wilson like a pinball for four sacks just three weeks ago.
And while the Panthers gave up a huge, 17-point fourth-quarter lead to Indianapolis and their pass rush looked gassed late in the game, they’re still tied for ninth in the league with 20 sacks and Rodgers has taken 14 sacks so far this season.
But Green Bay likely looks at their first real battle for NFC supremacy, one that could very well decide one of the top two seeds in the postseason and home-field advantage, as the next step to overcoming a checkered second-half schedule.
In the first six weeks of the season, like Carolina, the Packers didn’t exactly fend off the NFL’s best. Green Bay’s six wins came against squads that currently own a combined 17-29 record through eight weeks. Throw in the still-perfect 7-0 Broncos, and Green Bay’s opponents are just 24-29 this year, and only one other opponent (4-3 St. Louis) is currently above .500. The rest of the pack are either one or two games behind.
The remaining schedule at first doesn’t appear too daunting, but late in the season the Packers will face significant challenges.
After Carolina, Green Bay plays four straight in the division, two against the Detroit Lions (1-7), one against the Chicago Bears (2-5), who they already beat by eight points in the season opener, and then an emerging Minnesota Viking (5-2) squad.
Assuming Rodgers and Co. can ease past the Lions and Bears, the Vikings represent the only major hindrance to Green Bay’s goal of a fifth straight division title.
But the final four games of the season will determine whether or not Green Bay has some sort of home-field advantage or momentum in the postseason. The Packers will host the recovering Dallas Cowboys (2-5), then hit the road for two straight against a surprisingly effective Oakland Raiders (4-3) squad, followed by the burgeoning Cardinals (6-2). The season finale at Lambeau against the Vikings could be crucial.
It’s a harrowing gauntlet the Packers must run, but come the postseason they might look back on the loss to Denver as the season’s true turning point.